'It Was the Worst Thing I Could Imagine'
Grad Tells His Story of Alleged Abuse

By Margaret Fosmoe
South Bend Tribune [South Bend IND]
Downloaded May 6, 2003

John Salveson grew up a faithful Catholic on Long Island, attending the parish school and serving as an altar boy at St. Dominic's in Oyster Bay.

The parish priest, the Rev. Robert D. Huneke, befriended the family. The priest doted on John, eventually inviting him on weekend trips.

The Salveson family was honored that the priest paid such attention to their son.

The first trip was to Virginia in 1969. That's when the boy's long nightmare apparently began.

"He got into my bed in the middle of the night and performed oral sex on me," said Salveson, who was 13 years old at the time.

According to Salveson, the sexual abuse continued for the next seven years, during weekend trips and in the church rectory, where the priest frequently served the boy alcoholic beverages.

"I was drinking alcohol in the rectory when I was 14," Salveson said.

At the time, he told no one about what was happening.

After Salveson left home to attend the University of Notre Dame, the priest followed him. Huneke got a job as assistant rector of Cavanaugh Hall, a men's dormitory on campus, and began graduate studies while on leave from the Diocese of Rockville Centre (N.Y.).

"It was the worst thing I could imagine," Salveson said.

Huneke demanded that Salveson visit him, and the abuse continued, he said.

Salveson said he frequently tried to persuade Huneke to stop. The priest would respond by flying into a rage or sobbing that John was the only person who loved him, he said.

Salveson said he lived in fear and awe of Huneke. He said he later learned that the priest at the time also was abusing at least one other Notre Dame student.

Huneke would explain away his abusive behavior with a standard response, according to Salveson: "He'd often say, 'Life is a s--- sandwich and every day you take another bite.' "

"He said if you felt horrible and terrible every day, which I did, you were doing the right thing and living a Christian life," he said.

In public, Huneke was a charismatic, intelligent man who had a popular following among young people on Long Island and at Notre Dame.

By Salveson's senior year, Huneke had become rector of Grace Hall, a campus high-rise building that served as a men's dormitory in those days.

As a senior, Salveson applied to become a resident assistant in Grace Hall. Huneke gave him the job.

Saying no

Salveson, at age 20, confronted the priest and told him firmly that the abuse was over. "I told him I just couldn't do it anymore," he said.

Huneke was furious and "threatened to fire me," Salveson said.

The priest didn't follow through with that threat but instead, Salveson said, barraged him with sarcastic and belittling comments for the entire year.

"He was very moody and vindictive," Salveson said. The priest also drank heavily, which heightened his mood swings, he said.

Salveson received a bachelor's degree in 1977, then stayed at Notre Dame another year to earn a master's degree. Both degrees were in psychology.

As a graduate student, Salveson lived off campus. Huneke was still on campus, but Salveson cut off all contact.

Huneke, who earned a master's degree from Notre Dame in psychology, returned to the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island as a parish priest.

Salveson broke his silence at the age of 22 and told his girlfriend that the priest had sexually abused him for years.

In 1980, Salveson wrote a letter to Bishop John R. McGann, bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, reporting that when he was in high school Huneke had sexually molested him. He urged that the priest be removed from parish work.

"The bishop ignored my letter and later acted like he never got it," Salveson said.

Salveson then sent the letter by certified mail, and the bishop agreed to meet with him. (McGann since has died.)

Salveson said he described his ordeal and raised concerns about the possibility that Huneke was abusing others.

McGann agreed to meet with Huneke to discuss the allegations. In a letter to Salveson, McGann described the meeting.

"Father (Huneke) acknowledged his responsibility and assured me that he has been receiving counseling and spiritual direction and this matter has not been a problem for over a period of approximately two years," the bishop wrote in a letter dated Aug. 1, 1980.

Salveson requested proof that Huneke had been treated. By this time, the priest was working in a parish in Florida. He asked the bishop whether he had relayed Salveson's concerns to the Florida diocese.

McGann responded that there was no proof Huneke abused others. He enclosed a letter in which Huneke apologized to McGann, without specifically mentioning Salveson or the nature of the incidents.

Salveson contacted the Florida diocese, where Huneke was serving as a visiting priest at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa. He told the diocese about the abuse.

The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., sent Huneke back to New York in 1982, according to a 2002 article in the St. Petersburg Times.

Huneke continued as a parish priest in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

Salveson told his parents and two brothers about the abuse in 1988. "They were devastated. They never suspected. It was inconceivable," he said.

Salveson consulted with attorneys but learned a criminal case was impossible because the statute of limitations had expired for child sexual abuse charges.

Going public

In 1989, Salveson wrote an open letter to parishioners that began: "If you are not aware of Father Huneke's history of sexual abuse you should read this letter." Salveson, his father and two brothers stood on the sidewalk outside Huneke's parish, St. Patrick's Church in Huntington, N.Y., and passed out copies of the letter.

Their public protest drew coverage from New York media. The diocese responded immediately, removing Huneke from parish work.

Huneke established a private counseling practice catering to grieving families, Salveson said, and married a former nun who had served on Long Island.

In 2001, Salveson learned Huneke had become a guidance counselor for high school students at the Marist School, a Catholic school in Atlanta. The former priest's wife was head of the school's guidance department.

Salveson notified the Rev. Richmond Egan, president of the school, of Huneke's history of sexual abuse. The school didn't know Huneke had been accused of abuse or that he was a former priest, Egan told The Tribune last week.

Huneke had left the school by then, and the school fired his wife, Egan said. The school notified parents and offered counseling to students and their families, but no reports of abuse were received, he said.

No one affiliated with the Diocese of Rockville Centre has ever acknowledged the abuse, apologized or offered to pay for counseling, Salveson said.

A Suffolk County (N.Y.) grand jury investigation report issued in February found that the diocese had protected 58 sexually abusive priests and shuffled accused priests to other parishes.

On April 14, Salveson joined in a lawsuit of 23 men seeking $300 million in damages for alleged sexual abuse by 13 priests in the diocese. A lawsuit filed the same day seeks $1.55 billion in damages by 11 other men who claim they were abused by priests.

A few days later, a grade school classmate of Salveson's contacted him and told him he, too, had been abused by Huneke. He had never told anyone before.

Huneke died last May at age 62 in Atlanta.

Huneke was ordained for the Diocese of Rockville Centre in 1969. He took a leave of absence from the diocese in 1989, said diocese spokeswoman Joanne Novarro.

Because of the pending lawsuits, Novarro said, she cannot discuss anything else related to Huneke.

Salveson, 47, is married with three children. His son Peter, 20, is a Notre Dame sophomore.

Reaching out

Last fall, Salveson planned a trip to campus to visit his son. He arranged a meeting with Carol Mooney and Dennis Moore, both members of the university's Church Study Committee that last June presented the U.S. bishops with recommendations for responding to the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

Salveson told them his history and urged that Notre Dame take steps to help students who experienced abuse by clergy in childhood or as young adults.

Based on the number of clergy abuse cases uncovered in dioceses across the country, there must be Notre Dame students who are suffering the aftermath of such trauma, he said. He hopes the university succeeds in reaching out to help those students.

"In my mind, Notre Dame should be the model for how to handle (cases of) abuse," he said.

Salveson urges university leaders to include victims on their panels and in discussions about the church crisis. The issue needs to be presented in terms of its lasting effect on individuals, he said.

He is cautious but hopeful.

"The jury is still out at Notre Dame on how they will deal with this issue," said Salveson, a Philadelphia resident who is a partner in an executive search firm.

He's a volunteer director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national support group.

Salveson, who has sought counseling at various stages of his life, is no longer Catholic. He belongs to a Presbyterian church but said he's not a very religious person.

"My personal experience is that religion has hindered me from developing spiritually," he said.

A chance encounter

Salveson recalled a chance meeting in 1996 with the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, Notre Dame's president emeritus, aboard a train from Washington, D.C.

Hesburgh was Notre Dame's president while Salveson attended the university.

After seeing Hesburgh get on the train, Salveson walked over and sat down next to him.

"I told him what had happened to me. He said, 'I wish you had come to me while you were at Notre Dame. That priest would have been removed the next day,' " Salveson recalled.

Hesburgh was getting off the train at Baltimore.

As the priest got up and walked to the door, he paused, then walked back to Salveson and said: "If no one has said this to you before, I apologize."

Contacted last week, Hesburgh said he remembers meeting Salveson and the details of their conversation. He said he's never had a similar experience before or since.

Although Salveson didn't report the abuse during his student days, Hesburgh said he knew an apology was the right thing.

"I felt badly," Hesburgh said, "for the fact it had happened at Notre Dame."


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